Think Tank

On “Ambulance,” the opening track of Blur's first album in four years, Damon Albarn sings, “I ain't got nothing to be scared of,” over low, eerie strings and a hymnal choir. But in the months leading up to Think Tank's release, fans broadcast the opposite sentiment, buzzing with fear that, with this record, Blur (coming to the Great American Music Hall on June 17) would be forced to abdicate the British pop throne.

Devotees had plenty to worry about. Many fretted about founding guitarist Graham Coxon's recent tension-filled departure. Others worried that Albarn's side projects — including hip hop outfit Gorillaz and 2002's African exploration Mali Music — would taint Blur's pure Britpop sound. But with Think Tank currently reigning on the U.K. charts, the group proves it can still create a clever, cutting-edge collection, even if its music veers somewhat from the genre it virtually created in the early 1990s.

Coxon's absence is felt here, as the now-threesome abandons its guitar-heavy rock of past years in favor of a more robust rhythm section. “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club,” for example, bets everything on forceful, funky bass lines and vaguely tribal drums — and achieves a satisfying payoff.

Though much was made by critics and fans alike of Albarn's choice of English DJ Fatboy Slim to produce two songs, rarely does Think Tank wander too far into clubland. The Slim-produced “Crazy Beat” starts out with troubling (and intensely annoying) electrified vocals, but the tune shifts quickly into classic Blur, with deep, grumbling guitar and ferocious analog drums. Unfortunately, the band loses some energy midalbum, with the tepid percussion and drifting vocals of “On the Way to the Club.”

What's lacking — perhaps attributable to Albarn's unbridled influence — is the cohesion and catchiness that made earlier releases like Parklife and Blur so appealing. But Coxon's departure forces the band to get creative, adding a wild wail here or a saxophone there, for a mix that pleasantly pushes the boundaries of pop.

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